Sleight of Hand: A Novel of Suspense

  • Phillip Margolin
  • Harper
  • 320 pp.

The murder of a woman on the eve of her 10th anniversary — and projected prenup payout — casts suspicion on her husband in the latest Dana Cutler mystery.

Only a masterful mystery writer can tell you who murdered whom, right off the bat, and still keep you in attentive suspense for the rest of the book. Phillip Margolin is up to that task in Sleight of Hand.

There’s plenty of killing, unconventional lawyering, off-the-books police work and some skillful investigating by Margolin’s favorite private investigator Dana Cutler, a woman who is capable, on occasion, of intense physical ferocity.

The story centers on Carrie Blair and her very wealthy husband, Horace Blair. Carrie, a prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth of Virginia, disappears early in the book and is later found murdered, decomposing in a shallow grave in an open field. The bullet in her belly matches the gun found by police in the trunk of Horace Blair’s Bentley, and other evidence also points to Blair. He and his wife are rumored to have executed a prenuptial agreement that calls for him to pay her $20 million on their 10th anniversary. The fact that her death occurs just days before the payment is due clinches Blair’s guilt as far as the police and prosecutors are concerned.

But we know who killed Carrie Blair, and it wasn’t her husband.

Margolin spins his tale with marvelous craft and keeps us turning pages as Blair hires Charlie Benedict — a lawyer of checkered reputation, ruthless, stealthy — to defend him, while PI Dana Cutler, who has been off on a West Coast jaunt in pursuit of a priceless artifact from the Ottoman Empire, joins the police detectives in unraveling the real facts of Carrie’s murder and several others. Dana’s techniques are unconventional, and she has little patience with the law’s inconvenient technicalities. But she’s honest, while Benedict lacks any sense of right and wrong.

My principal reservation about the book is Benedict’s completely amoral character. He is hard to accept as a protagonist because he is irredeemably awful, yet we are asked to admire his shrewd tactics and intellectual acumen. When I got lost in the story, I forgot all about this major flaw, but now and then it nagged at me. Although there are plenty of brilliant killers in books like this, Benedict doesn’t quite rise to the demands of the central role that he is asked to play. If he were a larger evil force, he might have.

I have one minor reservation and two quibbles. Dana’s West Coast wild-goose chase, though engagingly told and, like the rest of the book, very well written, is not adequately tied into the main lines of the plot. Also, it is very difficult to duplicate the keys to a modern vehicle, a point not remarked on when it happens. And the initial description of Benedict is studded with clichés.

Still, Margolin’s prose is smooth and the story glides along, riveting our interest; the plot twists are credible and sometimes surprising, and the outcome is satisfying. If you want to curl up with a good thriller on a dark night, Sleight of Hand will do nicely.

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 15 publications. His new novel, Show Time, was published in May 2012.


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